Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Adhocism

The baby in the drawer

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Over the last year or so, my wife and I have been gradually selling or giving away our old baby stuff, most of which has languished in the basement ever since our daughter outgrew it. One item was the bassinet that was secured to the side of our bed when Beatrix was a newborn, which we sold over the summer to a local family that was expecting a child in October. A few weeks ago, my wife received a frantic message from the mother, saying that their baby was home from the hospital and that they couldn’t unfold the bassinet. She asked if I could come over the next day to help them figure it out, and while I wasn’t sure how helpful I could be—I’ve probably set it up it a total of two times, the last of which was years ago—I agreed to do what I could. Before I left, I asked my wife to look up some online tutorials, one of which contained the useful advice that the top bars of the frame had to be locked in place in order for the ones at the bottom to stay rigid. We passed the tip along to the couple, who responded, reasonably enough, that they couldn’t think straight with a new baby in the house. The next morning, I drove over, took a look at the bassinet, and locked the bars in the right order. It took me a total of thirty seconds. The mom thanked me, and I left. It was the best possible outcome, since it allowed me to feel like I’d performed a good deed with minimal trouble on my part. And besides, as I had told my wife the night before, I had a backup plan if we couldn’t get it to work: “They can always put the baby in a drawer.”

I wasn’t kidding, either. Before Beatrix was born, I decided to read all of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and I don’t mean the most recent version—I somehow settled on the 1957 edition, which I’d picked up somewhere or other. (My reasoning probably had something to do with the notion that it might contain useful advice that had dropped out of circulation.) In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I read it from cover to cover and promptly forgot most of it, which was no doubt for the best. But I still remember a passage in the section “A Place to Sleep,” in which Dr. Spock writes:

You may want to get a beautiful bassinet, lined with silk. But the baby doesn’t care. All he needs is sides to keep him from rolling out, and something soft but firm in the bottom for a mattress. A crib, a clothes or market basket, a box or bureau drawer, will do.

I’m pretty sure that this was where I first encountered these lines, although I later realized that they’re also quoted in one of my favorite books about creativity, Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s Adhocism, where they appear emphatically on the very last page. Adhocism is billed as the art of “tackling problems at once, using the materials at hand,” and Jencks and Silver seem to be implying that it can be inculcated literally from the cradle.

And I’ve often wondered whether Dr. Spock was just making a rhetorical point, and how many young parents actually put their babies in drawers. I found a reference to it in a lecture, “Only Connect,” that P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, gave in the early sixties at the Library of Congress. Travers recalled of her father:

Even his maxims came from Ireland. “Never put a baby in a drawer,” was one of them. But who would ever do such a thing? Even if he saw a doll in a drawer, he would pluck it out, saying “Remember Parnell!” We had never ever heard of Parnell, and I had to wait to make the connection till I read a life of him a few years ago. Soon after he was born his mother, called away on some pretext, put him down quickly and came back to discover that her baby had disappeared. She looked everywhere, servants searched the house, gardeners rummaged in the shrubberies—no sign of Charles Stewart Parnell. I hope I’m not inventing it, but I think the police, too, were sent for. And while they were once more searching the nursery a mewling little sound came from the bureau. And there was Charles Stewart, six weeks old and at his last gasp because his mother, absentmindedly dumping him into an open drawer had, also absentmindedly, shut it! I am sure my father knew this story. Where else could the maxim have come from?

But the fact that Parnell’s mother could “absentmindedly” stick him in a drawer implies that it was something that at least the Irish took for granted in the nineteenth century.

The advice persists, in slightly revised form, in the most recent edition of Dr. Spock’s book: “A cardboard box or a drawer with a firm, tight-fitting pad also works well for the first couple of months.” And I recently found a discussion thread from just two years ago on the official What to Expect website titled “Newborn sleeping in dresser drawer instead of bassinet.” The poster writes: “So my husband’s entire family…all think that it’s okay to have the baby sleep in the empty dresser drawer for the first month instead of using a bassinet. They all did that with their children. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?” Most of the respondents evidently agreed, although some pointed out that a drawer and a bassinet are essentially the same thing, and one wrote: “When I read this title it made me laugh and think of my grandma. She put all her kids in a drawer too. I think it was a generation thing. I also think it was cheaper than a bassinet.” The italics are mine—I’m delighted by the image of a mother putting “all her kids” in a drawer, whether she was inspired by Dr. Spock or not. Nowadays, we’re more likely to consider placing a baby in a cardboard box, like the sensible Finns, which neatly combines all the virtues of simplicity, frugality, good design, and an image that is ready for Instagram. A drawer still feels vaguely disreputable, perhaps because of our collective memory of Kearney’s son on The Simpsons. But that might be why I love it. A baby in a drawer is pragmatism at its unglamorous but beautiful best, and an early acknowledgement of how little we need to be happy and safe. I never put my daughter in one. But I sometimes wish that I had.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2017 at 9:02 am

The power of the unit

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Pisticci, Italy

In his indispensable book Architecture Without Architects, Bernard Rudofsky reproduces three black-and-white photographs of small towns—Mijas and Villa Hermosa in Spain and Pisticci in Italy—with a single short comment:

The use of a single building type does not necessarily produce monotony. Irregularity of terrain and deviations from standard measurements result in small variations which strike a perfect balance between unity and diversity.

And the pictures elegantly confirm this. In each image, we see rows of identical peaked, tiled rooftops, joined shoulder to shoulder, with small doors and windows looking out from whitewashed, featureless facades. You might think that this would resemble the soulless developments we see in so many gated communities in the United States, with their uniform townhouses marching up and down indistinguishable blocks, but instead, as Rudofsky states, the effect is deeply, organically right, with superficially similar houses merging together into a harmonious whole while maintaining a quirky individuality.

I’ve been staring at these pictures for a long time, because they seem to get at something fundamental about the creative process. When I’m working on any kind of extended writing project, fiction or nonfiction, I usually find myself thinking in terms of uniform units, often governed by the rule of three. Every story has three acts. Each act consists of a certain number of chapters that I envision as roughly the same length, if only because they’re determined by how much I can write in one day. Every chapter, in turn, falls into three segments, with each segment falling into three beats, and so on down the line. If this all sounds a little mechanical, it is, and the initial outline and first draft that I produce using this approach run the risk of following the pattern too neatly. Yet all the while—and this is the important part—the units that make up the narrative also follow the contours of the invisible terrain underneath, which I can only describe as the logic of the story itself. It means that when I go back to revise, and often when I’m writing the rough draft for the first time, I find those neat units deviating from uniformity in small but meaningful ways: certain beats can be minimized or even cut altogether if the rhythm of the story demands it, while others get expanded, and whole scenes or sequences vanish or are replaced by others. Even in the places where I follow my outline exactly, my hand trembles a bit, and I end up devoting more or less space than I intended to particular images or ideas. And when I’m done, if all goes well, I end up with something that seems varied and alive.

Villa Hermosa, Italy

It’s also crucial to emphasize that this is a pragmatic, utterly unromantic choice. Building a story out of many small, mostly uniform units is really a way of reducing the number of decisions that need to be made at any particular stage. And that’s true of architecture, too. Only one of the many spreads in Architecture Without Architects is titled “Unit Architecture,” in which Rudofsky explicitly talks about how relatively uniform units can add up to something varied and diverse, but the principle is in action on nearly every page: in picture after picture, we see houses of a single standard type clustering together across rough terrain to create a vibrant repetition of forms. And it isn’t hard to understand why that pattern recurs so often. As the architect Nathan Silver, author of Adhocism, has noted, vernacular buildings are “constructions of poverty,” and their simple designs and integration with the landscape are “a direct response to limitations.” These are houses built by the owners with their own hands, motivated for the most part by strictly practical considerations, and the result is more or less exactly what we’d expect: it falls back on a few proven rules, sticks with basic forms that have worked before in the same location, adapts itself to the environment because it can’t afford to impose itself upon it, and is less concerned with perfect uniformity and straight lines than with building something that will stand if constructed within a certain margin of error. It’s the kind of house you build when you don’t have a lot to work with.

Which is what a writer is always doing. Your creative resources might be infinite in theory, but in practice, you find that you barely have enough to get through the day, if you manage to even get started in the first place. (Where all that energy goes is a mystery, but any writer who has faced a blank page knows exactly how small that store of willpower can feel.) Thinking in standardized units is a strategy for dealing with the sort of imaginative poverty that every writer knows all too well. It’s easier to think about a chapter if you operate under the assumption that it looks pretty much like all the chapters you’ve written in the past: you can focus on the specific challenges that the scene presents rather than on solving new problems of structure from scratch. You know that the house will stand, at least for long enough for you to fix whatever other issues come up, because it’s always stood before. This approach takes your own limitations into account, both in the way it gives you a basic pattern to follow and in how it acknowledges—and even benefits from—the likelihood that you’ll diverge from even that simple plan. And when you’ve put the pieces together, “one after another, so that every one was adapted and limited by all that came before,” as Silver writes, and gone back to revise the whole in a way that no architect or urban planner ever could, you find that the work has assumed a shape that you never could have predicted at the outset. It takes practice and a healthy dose of humility, but once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll build something that lasts.

Written by nevalalee

March 7, 2016 at 9:35 am

An alternative library of creativity

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If you want to be a writer, there are plenty of guidebooks and manuals available, and some of them are very good. When you’re stuck on a particular narrative problem or trying to crack a story, though, you’ll often find that it’s helpful to approach it from an alternative angle, or to apply tactics and techniques from an unrelated creative field. I’ve always found inspiration from works intended for other disciplines, so here’s a sampling, in chronological order of original publication, of ten I’ve found consistently stimulating:

Magic and Showmanship (1969) by Henning Nelms. A magic trick is a work of theater in miniature, and writers can learn a lot from the insights that sleight of hand affords into the use of staging, emphasis, and misdirection, as tested under particularly unforgiving conditions. This book by the great Henning Nelms is the most useful work on the subject I’ve found from the perspective of storytelling and performance, and it’s particularly helpful on the subjects of clarity and dramatic structure.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation (1972) by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. An eccentric, highly opinionated meditation on bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever happens to be at hand, which is something writers do all the time. (The real trick is taking a story assembled out of odds and ends and making the result seem inevitable.) Out of print for many years, it was recently reissued in a handsome new edition that belongs on the shelf of any artist or designer.

A Pattern Language

The Little Lisper (1974) by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen. Coding is a surprisingly valuable field for writers to study, since it deals directly with problems of structure, debugging, and managing complex projects. I could have named any number of books here—Programmers at Work and its successor Coders at Work are also worth seeking out—but this classic work on the Lisp programming language, later updated as The Little Schemer, is particularly elegant, with a focus on teaching the reader how to think recursively.

A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander. Alexander’s magnum opus—which is one of the two or three books I’d take with me if I couldn’t own any others—is ostensibly about architecture, but its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software design. This isn’t surprising, because it’s really a book about identifying patterns that live, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures, all from the perspective of those who use them every day. Which is what creativity, of any kind, is all about.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I’ve always been fascinated by animation, which scales up from the simplest possible tools and materials—a pencil, a pad of paper, a hand to flip the pages—to collaborative efforts of enormous complexity that can require years of effort. Not surprisingly, its traditions, tricks, and rules of thumb have plenty to teach storytellers of all kinds, and this work by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men comes as close as a book can to providing an education on the subject between covers.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte. Tufte’s rules for clarity and simplicity in the presentation of statistics apply as much to writing as to charts and graphs, and his ruthless approach to eliminating “chartjunk” is one that more authors and editors could stand to follow. (“Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”) His other books—Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence—are also essential, hugely pleasurable reads.

On Directing Film (1992) by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book endlessly before, but it’s still the single best introduction I’ve found to the basic principles of storytelling. (In the meantime, I’ve also learned how much Mamet owes to the works of Stanslavski, particularly the chapter “Units” from An Actor Prepares.) It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a set of immediately applicable tools that solve narrative problems under all circumstances, and although it can be read in less than an hour, it takes a lifetime to put it into practice.

Behind the Seen (2004) by Charles Koppelman. The problem that a film editor faces is a heightened version of what every artist confronts. Given a large body of raw material, how do you give it a logical shape and pare it down to its ideal length? The physical and logistical demands of the job—Walter Murch notes that an editor needs a strong back and arms—has resulted in a large body of practical knowledge, and this loving look at Murch’s editing of Cold Mountain using Final Cut Pro is the best guide in existence to what the work entails.

Field Notes on Science and Nature

Finishing the Hat (2010) by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s candid, often critical look at his own early lyrics shows the development of a major artist in real time, as he strives to address the basic challenge of conveying information to an audience through song. Cleverness, he finds, only takes you so far: the real art lies in finding a form to fit the content, doing less with more, and navigating the countless tiny decisions that add up to the ultimate effect. “All in the service of clarity,” Sondheim concludes, “without which nothing else matters.”

Field Notes on Science and Nature (2011) by Michael Canfield. Much of the creative process boils down to keeping good notes, which both serve to record one’s observations and to lock down insights that might seem irrelevant now but will become crucial later on. Scientists understand this as well as anyone, and there’s an unexpected degree of art in the process of recording data in the field. It’s impossible to read this beautiful book without coming away with new thoughts on how to live more fully through one’s notes, which is where a writer spends half of his or her time.

Looking at the books I’ve cited above, I find that they have two things in common: 1) An emphasis on clarity above all else. 2) A series of approaches to building complex structures out of smaller units. There’s more to writing than this, of course, and much of what authors do intuitively can’t be distilled down to a list of rules. But seeing these basic principles restated in so many different forms only serves as a reminder of how essential they are. Any one of these books can suggest new approaches to old problems, so you can start almost anywhere, and in the end, you find that each one leads into all the rest.

Bricolage and the working writer

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Ad hoc chair

Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.

And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.

Sylvia Plath

Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

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